WINNIPEG - This is a classic example of when last is definitely not least.
After defenceman Neal Pionk inked a four-year deal worth $23.5 million ($5.875 million AAV) with the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday morning to avoid arbitration, forward Andrew Copp is the lone restricted free agent who needs a new contract.
Did we mention salary cap space is tight for Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff?
According to PuckPedia, the Jets have already committed $82,865,478 to 21 players and they’re already on the hook for a bonus overage of $145,122.
That means the Jets are going to need to make some moves on the periphery of the roster -- and they’re more likely to carry 22 (or maybe even 21) players instead of 23 when next season begins.
Even that might not be enough to balance the books and one of the considerations for the Jets might be subjecting defenceman Nathan Beaulieu to waivers and possibly sending him to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.
By doing so, the Jets would be able to remove all but $125,000 of Beaulieu’s $1.25 million salary from the equation, creating some wiggle room -- even after he’s potentially replaced by a veteran blue-liner making the league minimum.
After an exhilarating off-season that included the arrival of Nate Schmidt ($5.75 million) and Brenden Dillon ($3.9 million) in trades, bringing back Paul Stastny ($3.75 million) and inking restricted free agent D-man Logan Stanley to a two-year bridge deal ($900,000 AAV), most of the available money has already been spoken for.
And that includes a significant portion of the pool moving Bryan Little (up to $5.291 million) to LTIR will eventually provide.
Pionk deserved a sizable raise from the $3 million AAV he carried during his first two years with the Jets and that’s exactly what he received. He’s ultra competitive and it’s not a stretch to wonder if a partnership with Dillon might actually allow him to continue his progression.
When you consider some of the high-priced deals signed this summer, Pionk comes in at a very reasonable number. A four-year commitment is right in line with many of the other core pieces that were already secured through the 2023-24 season (and beyond).
So where do things stand with Copp?
That’s where things get interesting, especially with an arbitration date of Aug. 26 looming.
Both Copp and the Jets would prefer to get a longer-term deal taken care of at some point during the coming weeks, but that might not be possible in this flat-cap world. What we know for sure is that both parties want to avoid a second arbitration hearing. Another round of scar tissue isn’t a desired outcome -- nor is it necessary.
Which brings us to what’s behind Door No. 3.
Although not optimal, inking Copp to a one-year deal for somewhere between $3.6-to-$3.85 million could be a palatable outcome for the Jets and for the player.
Copp doesn’t get the security he’s earned through his play, but he knows exactly where he stands and knows he’s valued by the coaching staff and his teammates for what he brings to the table. He’d be getting a raise and the expectation would be that a bigger deal would be on the horizon.
The Jets would get a highly-motivated player who has shown improvement each and every season he’s been in the NHL. With 15 goals and 39 points in 55 games, Copp was tracking to eclipse 20 goals and approach 60 points in a full season. That type of production isn’t easy to replace, especially when you consider Copp’s defensive awareness and his ability to grow into a leadership role.
This isn’t the only option left for the Jets to mull over, though.
Winnipeg Jets' Adam Lowry (17) celebrates his goal with teammate Andrew Copp (9) during first period NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey action against the Montreal Canadiens, in Winnipeg, Wednesday, June 2, 2021. (CP)
Plenty of folks will suggest the Jets should consider trading Copp if they can’t sign him to a longer-term deal.
Not so fast.
While some might see moving Copp in a deal as a way to try and recoup some of the draft capital (two seconds and a third) that were sacrificed to trade for Schmidt and Dillon, that’s not how teams in “win-now” mode generally roll.
If the Jets were to trade Copp, they’d be forced to replace a middle-six forward who contributes to both special-teams units -- and they still wouldn’t have much money to do so.
Those players aren't readily available, nor are they often found in the bargain bin.
Instead of trying to integrate a new player into the fold or promoting from within, Copp is a known commodity.
He’s not an easy player to replace -- and that’s before you consider all of the energy he’s invested into the Jets’ program already.
Copp is ready to put down roots here in Manitoba, he’s not counting the days until he can leave as an unrestricted free agent or banging on the door of the GM demanding a trade to a tropical destination. He sees the potential with a group that features an improved roster and wants to be part of a potential payoff.
That’s why banking on him is the proper play for the Jets.
Copp isn’t going to be thrilled with having to take a one-year deal and it would be natural for him to feel frustrated by the process.
He’s seen the Jets commit to other members of the core and it’s hard not to feel slighted when one is not afforded the same recognition.
On the flip side, Copp is a guy who has never lacked motivation, nor has he been shy about using those challenges as fuel to push him to greater heights.
The concept of a self-rental isn’t universally loved and, obviously, comes with some risk attached to it.
Stuff happens and it doesn’t always work out.
The Jets do have some experience on this front -- especially during the 2018 run to the Western Conference Final, when all of Ben Chiarot, Tyler Myers and Brandon Tanev were headed toward unrestricted free agency.
With the Jets in a battle against the Nashville Predators for top spot in the North Division (and the President’s Trophy), there was never any thought given to moving those roster players for prospects, players or picks.
Sometimes, it’s just the cost of doing business.
A one-year deal doesn’t ensure that Copp walks for nothing on July 1 either, though it obviously increases the likelihood.
Consider this: if Copp is already worth somewhere in the neighbourhood of $4.5 million on a four-year deal right now, that number should only go up if he’s able to have another banner season.
But what if those same top-six minutes are not as readily available with the Jets this coming season?
It’s a logical question.
Ice time and opportunity almost always play a role in production, but even if Copp is used fairly regularly with longtime linemate Adam Lowry on the “third line” he will still be logging power play time and receiving substantial minutes.
Plus, when you consider the level of trust he’s built up over the years with Jets head coach Paul Maurice and the defensive acumen he brings to the table, Copp is almost always going to be the guy next in line to get the promotion when one arises -- if he doesn't force his way into a top-six job right out of training camp.
At every level he’s played, Copp has proven the doubters wrong and continued to carve out a bigger role for himself.
Don’t expect that to stop, no matter how this next step in the process turns out.
Copp provides tremendous value and versatility and the Jets are a better team when the Michigan product is in the lineup.
That’s precisely why this relationship should continue, even if a long-term commitment can’t currently be made.